In DCSki’s Interview Series, we take a look at interesting people who have a connection to the mountains. And there are few folks in the ski industry more interesting than Chip Chase, Founder of the White Grass Ski Touring Center in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. For over 40 years, White Grass has attracted cross country skiers with its beauty, snow, and soup. Chip is the ultimate ambassador for White Grass, and talking with him is like talking with an old friend.
Scott: Thanks for participating in the DCSki Interview Series, Chip. When did you first try cross country skiing?
Chip: I was about 23 years old and I decided I’d go up to Vermont. I was living in the mountains of Virginia at the time and I decided to go up there for the winter with a friend of mine and restore a cabin and a house up near Mount Snow. I actually took my granddad’s old skis and bindings and started alpine skiing.
Adjacent to where our project was, there was a Nordic ski area called Sitzmark. I got to know the operator Eddie Flaim, and he had me help him and then had another mutual friend up in the Killington area that introduced me to two friends who became life-long friends. So I was introduced to cross country.
When I was a child I downhill skied, and I was actually on a little hockey team as a kid, so I ice skated and I downhill skied, and that was real common in the 50s and 60s. But no one in my family or anyone I ever knew cross country skied. So when I got introduced to it, it really clicked immediately. It was like ice skating with skis on, but instead of a pond you’d have the entire planet to ski. You can just go anywhere or everywhere.
Nordic skiing in Vermont in the 1970s was happening. People from New York and Boston would come out. I actually started working in the Nordic ski industry in Vermont for two years in the late 70s and really got to know the business. Every spring I would go out to Colorado and see all the big telemarketers out there, and go backcountry skiing all throughout the west. One year we left Vermont and just hit the road for six weeks and went all the way out to Oregon and California and Colorado and all over the place, just telemark skiing. I had a bunch of friends who were downhill skiers and they were all Ski Patrollers, some of them were racers, but they all had gotten into the free hill downhill, and we rode lifts, and we’d come downhill actually on wood skis. We were just kind of learning.
I was fortunate to meet this guy Dickie Hall, and he had an organization called NATO, which stood for North American Telemark Organization. He taught thousands of people how to telemark ski in the day, in the 70s and 80s. So I was fortunate to run across Dickie Hall, and then my partner was Winslow Ayer, he was in Vermont, just an amazing skier even to this day, and Dickie and I just loved the way Winslow skied.
His dad was an original owner of Killington, and Winslow had grown up alpine ski racing, and that guy could freaking ski. And he got into the cross country thing with us too — there was just a group of us that had transferred from downhill to tele. And then cross country.
We worked at Mountain Meadows, just down the road from Killington, and we skied there, Dickie ran the place, and Winslow and I worked for him. We’d go out at night and cross country ski and make jumps and have lots of fun. We were working as instructors and rental people.
There was a famous guy there named John Tidd who’s still really alive and well, he’s in his mid-70s, and he actually started PSIA Nordic with a group of people. John Tidd is a very big name in the early cross country ski world. He was a Middlebury College guy in there with all the early guys. Nedd Gillette and Angus Black and Pete Wilson — these are all names that people in the cross country ski world know — John Caldwell and others — they all helped start the whole cross country eastern U.S. coast thing.
Scott: It sounds like you were in the right place at the right time with the right people.
Chip: I kind of found the passion on my own. I was doing a lot of things. At that point in my life, I was doing a self-sufficient, back-to-the-land thing, which was popular in the early 70s. My grandfather was an outdoorsman, he’d take me trout fishing, we’d spend a lot of time in the woods. He was the big downhill skier in the family.
We had a summer camp lake in upstate New York and we’d go there every year no matter where we were. My dad was Air Force, and we’d travel around the world, but we always came back to this camp in upstate New York. My parents downhill skied but we weren’t super stars, we were like most military families, everybody skied a little bit. We were stem christie people, we didn’t race or anything, but we recreationally skied.
Scott: I read that White Grass first started in Virginia?
Chip: It was in the George Washington National Forest. There’s a high point there called White Grass Knob, and we named it after that. Before we moved to Canaan we had two years where we were trying to do it out of the high mountains of Virginia.
I lived back up against the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia right against the border of West Virginia. We had a one-room schoolhouse at almost 4,000 feet. You had to go up this long, long state-maintained gravel road to get to it, so it was really remote.
We utilized the recreation department in Rockingham County and got to know personally a lot of the soccer players from James Madison University. They were bikers in the summer and soccer players. They were really fit and fun and cool.
We got all these wood skis and turned all these Virginia/Maryland people onto cross country skiing at this one-room schoolhouse. The first year was pretty successful, then the next spring, we looked in a magazine and heard about this cross country ski event in Davis, West Virginia, and we said “you’ve got to be kidding me.” I didn’t know there was anything in West Virginia, so we checked it out.
So Winslow and I drove over to Canaan Valley, and we met this guy named Bill Moore who was running the Nordic program over there, and I’ll be darned if it wasn’t March and they still had a foot of snow on the ground. Bill was a naturalist and he started telling us all about Canaan Valley and the snow and the weather.
The next year we went back to Virginia and were going to start our ski area again, but it didn’t snow, so we started packing up the skis and bringing them over to Canaan and utilizing the customers we had developed at the one-room schoolhouse.
It was funny because I lived on the borderline of Virginia and West Virginia for years and always kind of wanted to move to West Virginia, because it was just a little bit wilder and more woolly and more to my liking.
My buddy Tom Preston ran the Ski Patrol at Canaan. He said “I’m going to build a house this next fall,” and Winslow and I said “we’re both carpenters,” so Tom hired us to build his house in Canaan Valley. We built the house in the Fall, and it snowed four or five times that October at the construction site. We thought, “wow, it snows in October around here!”
Tommy and I and Winslow got together to ski off the top of the Canaan Valley ski area. We went up there with our cross country skis and decided to go over to Cabin Mountain to find this cabin. There was this geological designation with a waypoint that says “Cabin Knob,” but of course we didn’t know how to read a map right. We got all the way over there and of course there’s no cabin, it’s just called Cabin Mountain.
On the way over there to find it, we crossed through what is now the White Grass area, but back then it was called the Weiss Knob Ski Area, built in 1959. So we came across there by happenstance and skied down an old ski slope and ended up at a building at the base. We went right up to the window and looked in, and there were ski boots strewn across the floor.
So we thought, heck, why don’t we talk to the landowners and see what’s up with that place? I’ll be darned if the owner wasn’t Randall Reed, who was a professor at Ohio State University. He was a farmer on the side and owned this farm in Canaan, but was working full time in Ohio, and he needed somebody that he could trust that could do a bunch of farmwork. Farming is nothing but work. So we told him, “well Randall, we’re not farm experts, but we’re definitely willing and would really like to move into that little building.”
Winslow and I started remodeling it and opened up for business in December of 1981.
Scott: Did you have any idea then that, 40 years later, you’d still be going strong?
Chase: No, I thought that it would be 80 years later and we’d still be going strong!
It’s kind of like, the older I get, the harder I work. If you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life. I just totally, totally love what I do. My job now is to be a good vibe technician with customers. I can rent, and I can teach, but I’m just the web site guy now, the guy that answers the phone and walks everybody to their car.
I’m a real people person, my mom was a super people person, and we really are warm and fuzzy and love people and listen to people and hear what they have to say. White Grass is a really friendly place and I think the staff not only carries on, but exemplifies it further. I’m fortunate to have super good staff.
Scott: That’s one angle I wanted to talk about, because it really feels like there’s an incredible sense of community, across cross country skiing, across White Grass, and across the Canaan Valley region.
Chase: There is, it’s been a slow but sure progression.
When I came here in the late 70s there wasn’t as much going on. There was just the Canaan Valley ski area. There was a nice little community around that. As the years went on Timberline opened up, and then a lot of people migrated from Canaan to Timberline, and then as Timberline dropped off they went back.
There’s been an evolution of downhill skiers coming in. We have Davis and Elkins College nearby, which a lot of people have migrated from. There was also a Hoods to Woods program that brought outdoors people in. People wanted to live this lifestyle where they helped mentally challenged kids and did all this deep woods therapy. A bunch of those people stayed, and they’ve anchored in, and they’re now family.
The Art in Thomas thing is an interesting story. The Purple Fiddle music venue was one of the anchor businesses that started it. Americorps has been a big thing for the community.
In order for a community to be healthy it has to have a certain size and depth and variety in it to be sustainable, it can’t just be one type of people. So now we have all kinds of people.
I’ll tell you something I never would have predicted. All kinds of the kids that were around here at some point that have moved to Jackson and the mountains of Colorado are moving back.
Scott: No kidding.
Chase: It’s because there’s too much of a good thing out there, and it’s expensive. They’re getting pushed around, and it’s obnoxious. Downhill skiing right now is not doing too well. It’s like a banner ad for us, “go ski White Grass.”
A big day for us is 300 or 400 guests — sometimes we’ll do 800 people if it’s a huge day. But we don’t even approach 1,000 skiers a day. Snowshoe does 5,000 or 6,000 a day. A lot of these places do a million skiers a year. Cross country is small, and I think it’s always going to stay that way. It definitely does not appeal to everybody.
I think the community around here is absolutely fantastic, I couldn’t be happier. There are so many young people that have anchored in, that are now having kids. We have a Monastery school, we’ve got art, music, brew pubs, we have tourism coming out of our ears which is so healthy and wonderful.
All these people come up here for the right reasons. In the summer they’re canoeing and bird watching. We don’t have a big amusement park up here. So we’re getting all the forest people.
You’ll get a lot of people saying “I’ve been to White Grass a bunch, and you never have snow.” So you know, our snow comes and goes. This is not Siberia, it’s not Vermont, it’s not Utah. It’s banana belt cross country. I don’t think anyone south of us stands a chance. We’re doing it because we do have the best location in the Mid-Atlantic for what we do. Our location was chosen as the number one site in the state of West Virginia to develop a big downhill ski complex.
We have a good mountain and good exposure and if anyone has snow in the Mid-Atlantic, we likely do. Of course we have high elevation and northern exposure and all those good things that help all winter long, and we have our snow farm that is such a cool thing. We learned the hard way on that one.
Scott: I was going to ask you about that. In the summer you farm the land, and in the winter you farm the snow?
Chip: Oh absolutely, we work for the farm all winter long, even in the winter. In the spring, summer, and fall we’re working for the farm. And in the winter we do our own thing. It goes from a cattle farm to a ski farm. The fences go up and the fences go down.
Scott: Growing up in Colorado and Wyoming, I remember seeing these wood fences lining the road, designed to keep snow from blowing across the plains onto the interstate. Is that the same idea?
Chip: Absolutely, it’s a snow fence designed to keep snow out of a highway. We use it to put snow on a ski trail. I don’t think we’re the only people in the world to do it, but we probably have more snow fence than any ski area in the world. Specifically because most ski areas don’t have to worry about that — they have snow.
When we opened up in the early 80s, people didn’t have the clothing or knowledge or gumption that they have now. During that era, people would come to our ski area and our parking lot was reputed to be the most windy spot in the world. You’d get out of your car at White Grass and you’d be out in the wind, totally open, the wind would just whip you.
People were scared of this and we assured them, once you get into the woods, you’ll be out of the wind. And as we were telling them that, they were jumping back in their car and going over to Blackwater Falls or Canaan Valley State Park where they could get out of their car and be out of the wind before they even started.
So it took us awhile. And the fact that we were steep took a long time for people to like. And now everybody just loves it. Everyone is skiing so well, it’s like another world.
And of course the pandemic has resulted in an unbelievable increase in business. The more people we get, the more staff we get, the more ways we can get people out the door quick.
Our mode of operation is no lines, no waiting for anything, if possible. It’s an oxymoron, it’s a contradiction of terms — cross country and crowds. Once everybody is skiing on the mountains, they don’t have to worry anything about the crowds.
We’re like ten times bigger than Timberline and Canaan put together. We’re a 2,500 acre ski area. We have 1,200 feet of vertical. Our backyard is a very popular place, the Dolly Sods wilderness. So you can ski from White Grass into the Dolly Sods and probably not see anybody for days.
Scott: That sounds a little bit different than Mid-Atlantic downhill areas on a weekend, where the crowds have been rough this year.
Chase: I would say that Timberline Mountain has been doing pretty good. I think they might get even more crowded as time goes on and the word gets out at what a great job the Perfect North people are doing. We have a love affair going on with them. They just adore White Grass and we adore them. It’s the first time in 40 years in Canaan that a downhill ski area has complimented us. They all just think it’s stupid what we do, basically.
These guys and girls run a very successful ski area in Indiana, and they’re all about rentals and customer service and making snow and skiing and grooming. So they come over to White Grass, and they see our restaurant, they see our grooming, they see our trails, and they say “wow, we’re not cross country skiers but I see what you’re doing.”
And that’s exactly what we do. We’re not bankers, we’re not hedge fund people, we’re not real estate tycoons. We’re both ski area owner-operators that are farmers in the summer. So we’ve really, really hit it off.
We had a mutual friend that introduced us together, and he was crazy about White Grass and was a snow rep for SMI, and said that these Perfect North guys print money — I love that term — they do 3,500 rentals in a day over there in Indiana. They were looking for a ski area for 10 years to buy. Chip Perfect was head of the National Ski Areas Association for years. He knows the industry and was looking to buy something because they’re so successful, they wanted to do it somewhere else. He hand picked his best people and brought them over and they all own real estate, and basically moved to West Virginia. It’s great, and we love them.
Scott: Let’s say I’m a downhill skier or snowboarder and am kind of intrigued by this cross country thing. What’s the first step I should take to get introduced to this sport?
Chip: The easiest by far is to just show up at White Grass. We have rentals, we have lessons, we have trails. It’s so set up for you. It’s like a perfect set up. With food, friendly people, and everywhere you go people are skiing cross country, so you get to watch 100 people cross country skiing.
I would recommend a lesson. We do have a mini lesson that’s only $10 that’s like a quickie that shows you everything. A lot of people can pick up on that. We do teach a lot of downhill control lessons. You will hear people go all the time, “I’d love to go up to the top of Bald Knob, it’s so cool.” They like to go up because there’s not a lot of balance involved, it’s kind of like walking lazily and sliding along the snow. But there’s not a lot of skill that comes in.
That skier turns around and comes back 1,000 feet downhill to our place, of course it’s not necessarily steep, but you will have to balance yourself on skis and you might have to do a little snowplowing one or two places coming down Three Mile. Or you can even come down crazy steep stuff, we even have cliffs and stuff.
So these cross country skiers are not necessarily downhill skiers. The downhill skier will have an advantage in a lot of ways, because they’re used to all this movement in skiing in their feet and poles, a lot of that is similar.
But, it is different, and if you have a downhill skier that’s really, really good and they race, they’ll get the cross country thing right off the bat, because they ski totally centered on their feet. But if you have a recreational skier that leans around on their bindings and boots and they’re OK on downhill, all these little nuances are going to show up in spades on cross country skis. So the cross country skis work, but they work a bit slower.
I learned how to ski in the 50s, and I learned how to stem christie, and it’s very similar to the old fashioned skiing. It’s not as similar to the new skiing with all these sidecuts. The downhill boots and bindings are so awesome now that it’s automatic almost. I mean those skis want to turn.
Cross country skis are made to go over the land, they’re not made to just turn, turn, turn. They do make cross country skis that are kind of specialized and similar to downhill. If you had a downhill ski on cross country terrain, it would be heavy, it wouldn’t work right. Everything is a trade-off. Everything is designed to do one thing OK. It’s kind of like a jack of all trades, most of the skis that we have are good to do a little bit of everything.
Scott: With downhill, you’re almost always turning, going from edge to edge. But cross country skiing you’re often following tracks, right?
Chip: In cross country skiing, it’s uphill, it’s across the hill, and it’s downhill. So it’s all three of course. And then there are all these combinations. So a cross country skier, as soon as they put their skis on, they’re moving 100% of the time. Of course there’s no chairlift time. So you’re moving all the time.
So it’s actually warmer and dryer in a way. You’re not exposed to the wind as much. In downhill skiing you have to bundle up on the chairlift. In cross country skiing, you’re usually working more of course, a little bit more exercise. So you’re warmer.
So it’s really important that you can ventilate, just like all sports. Runners know about this. Even hikers and walkers that walk their dog know about this. You get warmed up and then you get cooled off. So you’ve got to be able to zip up.
It’s like in downhill skiing, the base layer is real important. You’re using your feet a lot, so you have to have wool socks. People that are coming to White Grass over the past 15 to 20 years are super well dressed. We never get frostbite. We ski at 10 below zero, easily. A lot of people would maybe not want to get on a chairlift on a day like that. We actually get people on a really, really cold day. They’ll come cross country skiing because it’s way warmer, in every way.
Scott: It’s also a very aerobic activity.
Chip: Well, let me tell you this Scott. There’s a real big difference between Olympic skier Jessie Diggins, racing your heart out and then passing out at the finish line, where it’s the most aerobic sport in the world. They say that cross country ski racers are putting out more energy than anyone on the planet.
The skiing we do at White Grass is recreational. And it’s to have fun. It’s just to get out in the woods in nature. You can stop. You don’t have to go fast. You don’t have to jog. You can rest. It’s not necessarily only for the super fit people, it’s for the average person.
Now if you are unfit, you probably won’t like it. And if you’re unfit, you ought to come over and go snowshoeing. And if you’re really unfit, you ought to just come over and eat at the restaurant.
Scott: What can you tell me about the gear?
We usually sell our cross country ski gear to our customers, because we have a chance to, and of course it gives us money to replace it with fresh, brand new stuff.
But there’s been a global shortage in skiing gear, especially cross country. So we’ve kind of said no to a lot of people until we can get more gear.
We’re working on it spring, summer, and fall. Everything is gone in the ski industry. They pressure you to buy like two years in advance now. It’s amazing.
It’s really hard to get stuff right now. We’ve been buying stuff retail all winter long from the big boys. If L.L. Bean’s got it, alright, I buy it. I don’t care if it’s a little more than what I would pay, because I need the ski boot. And the people that made the boot, that would be Rossignol, they’re sold out until next year. It didn’t come to me, because they back-ordered me, because I’m kind of at the bottom of the pile.
It’s also true in the bike industry, Scott. The big players are getting the product. They have staff, they’re buying years in advance, and they’re waving like a million dollars in front of them. You can’t compete with that. They’ve got it figured out to a science how to get the product. They’re way out in front of me. I mean, I’m Chip. I’m a little ski shop.
So anyway, we’ve had a crisis of product but we’re still trying to be an outlet for people to buy not only good but appropriate gear for this region, which is hilly, and not groomed.
We use a binding called BC which stands for backcountry. All the boots are high top, and very sturdy. All the skis we use are almost 70 millimeters wide at the tip, which doesn’t sound like much for a downhill skier, but is pretty wide for a cross country skier.
The cross country that we do is recreational. Right now, there are a lot of people, and they’re in their 30s mostly, and they love to be fit. If you say to them, you know you’ll have to exercise to get up there, they go yes, that’s what we came for, we love the exercise.
The skiing at White Grass is actually thrilling. We don’t ski around circles, we don’t skate very much. We’re going up to the mountains to go to a shelter in the spruce trees and to put some cool drawing on the chalkboard and drink some water out of the springs that we have along the trail and to meet some people and just go to some new trail. We have so many trails.
We’re such a mature business now and we’re really good with people. That means no lines. As soon as you get out of your car, someone is helping you park. You go up to the window or breezeway area, you don’t have to go in if you don’t want to. Somebody will help you fill out your rental card.
People ask “what do I do with my shoes?” You can leave them here, nobody steals, just put them on the shelf. Nobody steals anything here. We don’t have lockers.
One of my favorite things to do on the planet is to keep track of lost and found. People come in, they look for a pair of sunglasses they lost, and they say “oh they’re not here” and they walk away. And I say no, leave me your phone number, your address. We go through the lost and found trying to match things. And we call people up and say we’ve got your glasses, we’re going to send it to you for free. And we send all the lost and found back for free.
It’s like the granola bars at the shelters. We go through hundreds of dollars of free granola bars every year. So when you go to the shelters, the ammo cans are full of free granola bars. That’s like the least we can do. It’s stuff like that that people like.
And I go around and hand everybody free stickers. Because I don’t advertise. I don’t advertise in the Post, I don’t advertise in Blue Ridge Outdoors. We have never advertised because if we have snow, we have skiers, and if we don’t have snow, it’s abandoned. So we don’t need to advertise because it’s all about snow.
Scott: And word of mouth is the best form of advertising.
Chip: Yeah, there’s this guy Klaus Obermeyer, famous clothing guy you all know about. He always had a quote. 80% snow, 20% economy. I love that. It’s all about the snow.
Scott: How consistent has the snow been in the area over the decades? Are there some years where there really just isn’t enough snow to open at all?
Chip: Well no, it’s never been that bad. I can’t remember — maybe it was five or six years ago — we probably had our worst year ever. It never really got cold the entire winter. We’d have snow for three or four days, and then it would rain and melt.
I’ve seen years where it all came in March. Maybe three or four years ago, all of our snow came in March. January and February stunk. And then March it snowed 75 inches. That was a funny year. It was so bad that Canaan closed on the 3rd of March. It was like border-border-borderline. And they just said, the heck with it, and they closed.
And it snowed 70 inches after they closed, and they didn’t re-open because it was too hard. Timberline meanwhile was at the end of the Reichle days, so they were doing bad that year anyways. So White Grass was the only ski area open and it snowed 70 inches and we were open 31 days that March.
And we were busy. The last weekend in March we were still busy. It just goes to show you that cross country skiers are so weather oriented. They’re not holiday oriented. They all have Subaru Outbacks. They watch the weather and they have to be fast on their feet.
When the skiing is good the skiers know it. My crowd will ski into April. We’ve re-opened in April and had big crowds — in April! We get a late spring dump and we re-open.
One of the coolest things that ever happened to us was the super Sandy storm. We got 42 inches of snow. And so we had a sign at White Grass, we didn’t get open for about two days, and we got open two days later our sign said, “no electricity, no water, no phone, welcome.”
Scott: And “no problem.”
Chip: And no problem. So all these people came down from New England. There was a whole group of about a dozen of them that wanted to ski one day every month. So the snowstorm that year came on the 30th of October. They stuck around until the first of November to get their October and November dose of skiing for their club.
The snow lasted until Thanksgiving and then it melted off again by then. But we had the whole month of November. A bit in the middle of November, which is way early for us, we had already sold like 150 season passes. Which just never happens. But everybody said, well the snow’s there, it’s got to be used.
Scott: How much does a season pass cost at White Grass?
Chip: $160 now. And it’s a little bit cheaper for a couple, and your kids are $45 a year. And we do a little bit cheaper for locals who live here.
We’re up to about 450 season passers, and if you think about that, that’s a pretty busy day at White Grass. We could have a busy day with just passers, without new people. And I don’t want to turn it into a private club. Because I just think our mission is obviously to turn people onto Nordic skiing so they can try it. It’s like a real personal thing.
Some people think it’s great, some people think it’s stupid, and everything in between. We do have people saying that now that we have the ski area so organized and so smooth, and the trails are so good through all this volunteer work, these people are saying “I’m really mad,” and I go “why are you really mad?” And they say “because I just found you this weekend. I should have been here 25 years ago.”
People really fall in love with it. Some people it’s just totally what they’re looking for. And I’m telling you Scott, the gear is so frigging perfect. We have the perfect ski boot, binding, pole. And I’ve been doing this for a long time. Right now we have the most perfect equipment you can get.
We don’t even sell moleskin anymore, because nobody gets sore feet anymore. And nobody gets frostbite, and nobody’s cold. We had the neck warmer revolution with the neckies, and that changed the world, man. Everybody’s so toasty warm.
Scott: Cross country skiing is also economical. There’s a huge barrier of entry now for new skiers in the downhill world. You have the super passes like Epic and Ikon, which are really quite inexpensive for the value you could theoretically get, if you could ski every day at a different place across the country. But if you’re just starting out, you’re looking at $100 lift tickets to ski for a day on a weekend, and then you have to get rentals, and a lesson. So it gets very, very expensive on the downhill side. But on the cross country side it seems quite reasonable.
Chip: Yeah, it is. And we have a program for your kids, extremely popular: buy once, trade free the rest of your life at White Grass. $250 it starts out at. And then when they become adults and they go from kid skis to adult gear, which of course is more expensive, there’s another $150 fee. So your lifetime investment at White Grass, and I’m into my fourth and fifth generation of doing this, is 400 bucks. And you own your poles, your skis, and your bindings.
Scott: Alpine ski boots alone can cost more than 400 bucks.
Chip: Yup. And you can also spend maybe $2,000 on super expensive telemark mountaineer gear if you wanted to, which is the other end of the sport.
The thing about downhill skiers is they don’t realize how easy it is to climb the mountain. And we do not herringbone straight up the mountain. We ski up the mountain and we’re gabbing and sipping on a beer, we’re not out of breath. Skiing up hill is really fun. You’re looking around, you’re looking down through the trees for a telemark line, or to hop into the powder.
One thing I like about it versus alpine is that it’s 100%. As soon as you step out the door you’re moving. You’re never off the snow, you’re never not skiing, ever.
Some of the downhill skiers that ski here, they’ll say to you, “when do we get to the skiing part?” And of course they’re talking about turning on a pair of skis on the way back down. And, well, we call you guys yo-yo skiers: up and down and up and down. I find it’s really boring compared to what we do.
Downhill skiers are looking for beautiful terrain, the hush, the sound of the snow, the snow on the trees, the view from the top of the mountain, the crisp air. That kind of thing is something we have too. I actually think we get it in spades.
My snowboard friends come over and say, “you know what I got out of this?” And I say “what?” “How quiet everything was. I love the quiet.”
Downhill ski areas can be very quiet, but eventually you have to come down to the bottom, and it’s not as quiet there. With a Nordic ski area, there’s not as much noise. So that’s kind of cool.
I think we’re a very, very well run ski area. I think we’re organized, and I think we’re polite, and friendly, and fairly affordable, and we have great gear and fantastic instructors, and if I could pat myself on the back anymore… We’re constantly going forward and looking at the suggestion box, we’re always monitoring what we can do to make it nicer for everybody, especially the staff and especially the customers.
Being a private, small ski area, we don’t have to check with corporate headquarters — we are the corporate. I’m a skier, I’m an outdoor person, I’m a farmer, I’m a carpenter, I’m a granddad and a dad and a husband, all that normal stuff. I live a fairly mellow life in a rural area. I pay attention, I’m a good business man. I feel like I have a really good eye on what needs to be fixed and changed.
We’ve finally come to the evolution in our business where we can probably afford to do what we want now. The pandemic has at least doubled our business, and it was a surprise, because I thought it would almost halve it.
We’re fortunate to have a good staff, we all work together, we’ve got some people that do this, that, and the other, and we have a great cafe.
Scott: That was going to be my next question. I’ve heard great things about the cafe and the food. When we last spoke, I was doing a story on Timberline and it was right around the beginning of the pandemic before Timberline had re-opened under its new ownership. You were concerned about how COVID might affect skiing but also the cafe operations.
Chip: Yeah, well the cafe now is still just carry out. Some people are still a little disappointed about it, but we’re too small of a lodge and there’s too many people and it’s just too early in the pandemic to give up on it right now.
What we’ve done is we have a lot of picnic tables and we have a lot of open fires and closed places in the breezeway. We’re not an open restaurant inside and we don’t have night dinner anymore.
We used to have a really cool night dinner scene that catered to the alpine skiers. The cross country skiers had gone home, after eating White Grass soup all day.
Meanwhile, the downhill people that are in Timberline and Canaan want to go out, and they’ve got large families and all their kids. We’d have live music and this incredibly cool world menu. Really cool food, it was always different, always changing, never the same.
I would be there with the moonshine. The city folks would go, “this is really cool, I’ve never drank moonshine.” And I’d say “you’re about to, it’s required by state law that everybody in the state must drink moonshine before they leave” — well, not really. But you create this really fun environment. That’s gone away.
So now we only have catering at dinner. But what we started doing, which was really smart, is we started taking orders at 3:30 for dinner carryout. You can pick up your dinner as early as 4:00 and as late as 7:30.
So what’s happening is a lot of the cross country skiers are buying the dinners to leave now. And we also have a lot of the other people coming over, but there are a lot of places in Canaan and Davis and Thomas that do allow indoor dining. So those big groups with their kids, they’re not coming this year. They’re going to another place where they can sit down and be warm and have a good time, and not us. So we’re losing some of that night business, but, whatever.
Scott: It sort of balances out.
Chip: The cafe’s been run by my wife Laurie, and she’s an incredibly good cook, and a very, very smart business girl. And the cafe has been subsidized by the ski area for 40 years. They have never been told, you’ve got to chop more, you’ve got to be faster, you’ve got to buy cheaper food, we’re not making money.
For 40 years, it’s kind of like social democracy, which is what the Norwegians seem to do. Those are the people that Nordic ski so well. You subsidize things that you like. We don’t care if the cafe makes money, we want the cafe to just be outrageously great. If we didn’t have that cafe there, skiers would start chewing on their arms as they go down the mountain.
Scott: You build up an appetite cross country skiing.
Chip: Yes, and White Grass smells like soup. So you walk in the door, and the kitchen is connected to everything, and what they’re cooking just goes right in your nose, and you’re starving to death so it’s almost like a captive audience.
Scott: Tell me your favorite item on the menu at the cafe.
Chip: Soup of the Day. And that means about 10,000 Soups of the Day. Over the years I’ve probably had about 10,000 types of soup. I kind of live on soup all winter, because they cook all these different kinds of soups. They have some main soups and then they’re always changing. They just go crazy with their menu. They’re really free to roam.
We’re all sort of naturalists. I was a vegetarian for years, and a health food eater, and I had a health food store in my twenties, in Broadway, Virginia. My wife is a little bit more mainline, but she’s really skilled at basically everything. She designed our house, she designed our cafe, she designs everything. She’s like super, super smart. Very sensible gal. She’s the heart and brains behind the whole thing.
And she’s trained everybody. She’s retired now, and it’s all being run by her staff. She taught them well. She still helps a little bit, of course, and overlooks the whole thing. We have all these young people doing it, and they love it.
We pay people well, and have had a lot of salary increases. Ever since we made money, the more money we make, the more money we pay our staff. That keeps people happy, of course. And I think the money should go to them. I don’t want to spend it on myself, I do fine on my own.
I really love feeding money back into the business. I’m sure everybody that hears that knows exactly what I’m saying. Nothing gets better than improving your business, that’s exactly what success is for.
Scott: It seems to me that White Grass has so much character. I worry with all the corporate consolidation going on in the ski industry right now, a lot of ski areas that used to have their own flavor, their own individuality, they risk getting homogenized now.
Chip: I think what’s starting to happen in some areas, regardless of the corporate thing, is that there’s still a lot of soul, there are still a lot of locals, and there are still really cool factors and the beauty of the local towns that they’re in.
Scott: That’s a good point.
Chip: That will never go away. The way the corporate thing is going, is they’ll change, they’ll variate. If it’s not working, if they’re making mistakes, like anything on the planet, they’ll fix it, they’ll revise it.
They can’t just keep getting more corporate and ice cold and streamlined and put people in line like it’s some kind of factory. It’s not going to work. Every business, as you well know, has got to keep itself afloat. If it doesn’t, it sinks, that’s the way it works.
And that’s great. That’s free enterprise. So I think the downhill ski areas are learning. And they’ve got their eyes and ears open. They see the articles, they know they’ve oversold, and they know they’ve got problems with staffing.
They know all this stuff, because it’s been going on for years. I don’t know what the solution is, but there has to be a solution. I think that whatever people want they will get. So if the downhill skiers around the world wanted the mom and pop thing to come back, and they keep saying that, I think it will go back to that.
It’s the golden age of skiing, and people can afford it now. And there are more of them. I think skiing is fairly popular now. My clientele is just a very, very thin slice of the population. And these are the people that we know they’ll come back.
I used to say that cross country skiers were a lot more lifetime, because it is affordable, and it’s kind of a spiritual sport, and it’s kind of an aesthetic sport, like a soft, quiet sailboating kind of thing. It’s not just a big hydroplane going wha, wha, wha! It’s a different crowd, they’re basically tree huggers. Those people are going to always find it.
I think our sport will benefit from the mistakes that the downhill ski areas are making. People are mad about various things. It might help them to come to our sport.
I would say that the best thing that ever happened in West Virginia is that it pours rain every holiday weekend and every weekend of every winter it pours rain. And we love rain here. Because it’s just what happens. If you don’t like the rain, then you need to get to Montana or go somewhere else where it doesn’t rain.
There’s a saying around here that if it snowed anymore, none of us could afford to live here.
Scott: That’s interesting.
Chip: If we had five thousand foot mountains instead of four thousand mountains, it would be so expensive that no one could afford to live here. We ski on two inches. It’s a different thing, it’s not only Eastern, but it’s Southeastern. A crud puppy is a term for somebody who revels in marginally skiable snow.
Scott: A crud puppy, OK. I hadn’t heard of that before.
Chip: A mogul to a cross country skier is where two tracks cross. You know what I mean? It’s just a whole other deal. It’s so different.
I would say that people are cross country skiing, some people do it for exercise, but most of the people that work at White Grass and most of the people that come to White Grass are looking for beauty and they’re looking for nice people, nice food, a nice place. Everybody in Canaan Valley is friendly.
The people that are at the desks, the people that are answering the phone, are not all the country bumkins they were in the 70s when I first moved here, where they didn’t ski and they didn’t like tourists. You used to get these people working who were like, this gosh darn job, and they’re all grumpy. I think those people have kind of faded off.
They’re getting replaced by these young people that said “I want to move to Canaan Valley West Virginia forever, and I love it, and I like the rain, I like the clouds, I like the wind, I like the seasons when nobody is here in April and May and November.” People move here for the right reasons.
Scott: If you hadn’t made that trip to Vermont back in the day, and you didn’t develop the passion for cross country skiing and opening White Grass, what do you think you would be doing in an alternative life?
Chip: Well, I was an alternative kid before I got into Nordic. Nordic skiing was a result of my desire to be an alternative person. I was a back-to-the-lander. I was into the self sufficiency movement in the 70s where people like myself dropped out of college, and we barely got out of the War. I almost got drafted into Vietnam, my dad was in Vietnam. I was against it.
I was part of the group of people that learned from the farmers and wanted to learn all their trees and know how to grow their own food and know how to live simply and how to live on low income. I think I took a lot of that and of course put it into White Grass.
But I was a carpenter, and then I was a lifelong chimney sweep. And that was a really fun job, because everybody took pictures of me, and I had my grandfather’s University of Pennsylvania beaver high hat, which was my top hat, and I wore it for 40 years. It was just the most bashed up thing you’ve ever seen. I never got on a roof without my granddad’s hat.
But it was kind of ironic, because he was a gentleman and was a lawyer and all this and that, and I was this chimney sweep.
So I ended up spending all this time doing trail work, and I’m always cleaning leaves out of ditches. And I can remember my mom saying to me, “Chipper, if you don’t get an education, you’re going to grow up to become a ditch digger.”
So here I am digging ditches with all these people from D.C. that have met Bill Clinton and everything else, coming out for the weekends to volunteer to do trail work. We’re all happily raking leaves out of ditches for cross country skiing. It’s a little different, but I knew what my mom meant.
My life’s work has been really rewarding and I’m really into it. My theory is that the older I get, the harder I’m going to work. And I’m going to try to stay active and young and I’m going to use it or lose it. I want to become a more informed person. I want to be a more compassionate person. I want to have empathy for everybody.
I met this woman the other day in Thomas. She’s 87, 88 years old. And I really like her. She acts like she’s 20. And I said to Barbara, I said “Barb, tell me the secret of your life.”
She looked at me and said “well, I can tell you one thing, because I can tell how old you are. The best decade of my life was 60 to 70.”
And I’m now 68 and I totally agree with her. I’ve never been happier in my life. I have a fortunate thing that I’m healthy, and I have a fortunate thing that I have a great wife, and a great community, and a great business.
I tell this to a lot of people, I’ve hung out with 30-year old people 99% of my life. And they’re all half my age now, they could all be my kid’s age. And I always tell them that story and it really turns them on. They love to hear that there’s hope — you know? By the time you’re 60, Scott, man, you don’t give a shit about things anymore.
“I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That’s Woody Allen. But anyways, my mom died in ‘83. And I constantly hear her sayings every day of my life. I kind of get emotional about it. She taught me the best things. My parents taught me to be polite, and nice, and they taught me to listen to people. I can hear my mom over and over again, all her little sayings that she had. They were all just these truthisms of life.
And you hopefully take all those things you learn from everybody, you learn from the world, you learn hopefully from your parents when you’re a kid, and when you’ve learned stuff young, that’s solid stuff. And I learned to ski young. And if you can teach people anything young, it comes naturally.
This whole program that we have with kids skiing is so cool, and we subsidize it, we make it keep. And then these kids are out-skiing their parents in time of course. And then they become lifelong skiers.
But I think I’d probably be a carpenter and a chimneysweep and I’d probably be half as happy.
My dad was strict, and he became real conservative in his old days, and I would constantly make fun of him. I said, “dad, I have more unfettered, unplanned joy in my life in one day than you have in a year.” He was so uptight at the end of his life. All I can say is, “no.” I’m not going there, man.
Wine, candlelight, quiet, cafes, your family, your home, your book, your couch, your living room — all that stuff is all we need. Love is all you need.
I was a Beatles fan, I saw the Beatles when I was a kid. Live. We were super Beatles fans. As a matter of fact, this whole get-back-thing was big and man, my sister and I and my big brother, we were crazy about the Beatles. The Beatles changed our whole life for us in the 60s and 70s.
And they opened up the entire world. Before that, it was Eisenhower and Nixon. The Beatles blew it up for the Americans and the Americans were so ready for this British invasion. Those guys came onto the Ed Sullivan show and everybody in the country remembers exactly where they were.
I just loved what they did. They made it fun and different, and I can remember my parents looking at me and saying, this whole Rock and Roll Beatle thing is a fad. It will not last. And look what’s happened.
Scott: I think it lasted.
Chip: You can say that again. I’m glad that they proved them wrong.
If you’re a bluegrass musician, you play three chords to a hundred people. If you’re a jazz musician, you play a hundred chords to three people. I just love music, always have.
Being a musician is a harder life than what I do. And I tell you one thing, having a seasonal business like White Grass, there’s nothing better. Everybody can be friendly for 90 days a year. And then the rest of the year, you’re off, you’re not skiing, you’re not dealing with the general public. And you can fix it up.
It’s almost like putting on a festival or something. You prepare, you prepare, you prepare. You get all your ducks in a row. You get everything going. And then, bam! It happens. And then, bam, it’s over. You clean it up, you clean it up, you clean it up. And that’s basically what White Grass is.
Chip: Because in the spring, summer, fall, it’s a family-working farm. And it’s quiet with no tourists. We do a little bit of catering out of the kitchen, but basically we board the ski area up and nothing happens there. And that’s the way the farmer owner wanted it.
Scott: Well Chip, this has been really fascinating. I have learned quite a lot in our conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time to share all of that. Were there any other topics that you wanted to make sure we hit?
Chip: I think you got it. I really appreciate what you guys do at DCSki, and I know that you do it in your volunteer time, and obviously have a big full-time job doing other things. I really appreciate people that carve out time to share their passion. Not for money, but just for what they believe in. It’s like a force that they want to share.
I think that that’s a lot of what we’re all experiencing. We’re all in a small area, we’re kind of in a place where we share Bryce Mountain, and Winterplace, and Wintergreen, and Snowshoe and Massanutten and all these ski areas. I think that if you go around to all of them, you probably have a lot of fun, a lot of variety.
The people that complain about everything are usually not good about anything else. We have the half-full and the half-empty, and you look at the White Grass webcam, and it’s half snow and half grass right now. And the reason why is the wind blows and we get horizontal snow. Those loose little spaces where there isn’t snow, there’s usually never snow there all winter, unless it comes from the East.
We get all the half-empty people saying “oh, the skiing’s terrible, I’m not going.” Meanwhile the half-full people are saying, “I know what that means, that means you can ski all the way to Bald Knob!”
Scott: I think you sold me Chip. I think I’m going to have to make it out to White Grass one of these days.
Chip: You know my buddy, Denis Bogen, he now lives in San Francisco. He was a telemarking guy. You wrote an article about Denis. He was an incredible physicist. And he’s a lifetime skier with a lot of New England in him. And now he’s out in the Sierras with his family and we keep in touch.
I remember Denis saying, “I’ve got to get over there to Timberline so I can go skiing.” And the lift at Timberline used to be slow. And I said, “18 minutes up, 2 minutes down. 36 minutes up, 4 minutes down. 60-some minutes up, 8 minutes down. You see where I’m going Dennis?”
And he’s a scientist. It’s the law of diminishing returns. The faster you ski, the more that you don’t ski. And I don’t care who you are, where you are, if you’re sitting on a chairlift, you are not skiing.
Scott: That’s true. That’s an interesting point.
Chip: So the faster you ski, the more you’re sitting on the chairlift. Now, the problem now, and I’m eating my words, is Timberline’s got a new high-speed chairlift that’s like four minutes, which is barely time to open a conversation or look at the person next to you.
Scott: The solution to the law of diminishing returns is clearly faster chairlifts.
Chip: With the fast chairlifts, what you have to do then is you have to bring a spare set of legs. Some people put them in the trunk, I like to hang them in my closet. You’ve got to have a spare set of legs now.
Because, these people are coming over to White Grass at 10 o’clock, saying, “I’ve already done 5,000 vertical, 12,000 vertical at Timberline.” And it’s like 10 a.m. It’s just unbelievable, the high-speed lift has changed Timberline. You do get a lot. The thing about alpine skiing is there’s so much going on, that you do need that rest, and you do need that chairlift, and you do need that break.
But cross country, everything is sort of spread out and more medium here. You’re not going down moguls. It’s just a different kind of thing.
I have more potential than any business in the Mid-Atlantic. You take my driveway, you take a left, and go south, the next skiing is Patagonia. It takes about 26,000 miles to the next ski area. You take a right, and it’s pretty much central New York which is about a 7, 8 hour drive. So imagine having one bike shop from, like, Maine to Patagonia. And that’s basically what I’ve got.
I think our web site is amazing, and I think we’ve utilized the web more than anybody in the industry. And we usually win, or come in the top 5 in the USA Today poll of all the North American ski areas, and we’ve actually won it a couple years. #1 in North America, White Grass.
And the reason why is because we have such a web thing. And the reason why people have to check our web site is because the weather’s going to change every 5 seconds. It’s here today, gone today. It’s not even here today, gone tomorrow. People have to check the weather all the time here, because it’s so undependable.
We use web cams and we use up to date trail reports. But since people have to look five times a day to see if it’s worth driving 5 minutes over here. As a result of that, we put up poetry, we put up philosophy, we put up little things that are kind of vignettes of the wholesome of the place.
Scott: Chip, it’s been fascinating to talk with you. I really appreciate your time and perspective.
Photos provided by Chip Chase / White Grass Touring Center
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
The snow isn’t always like this but when it is, it’s amazing.
The first time I pulled into the parking lot at White Grass, flags from every country were flying along the base lodge perimeter. It kind of reminded me of an early Olympic venue from the 1920s, a time when there was only skiing. The sport was not split between nordic or alpine, cross-country or downhill. There was just skiing. There were no lifts. The fact that White Grass is on the site of an early downhill ski area seems to join the sport spiritually. The whole vibe is steeped in this soulful link to the heart of the sport, to the calling of snow on mountains shared by community. It is almost cliche to say it but true nonetheless, White Grass is this heart and soul. Chip Chase will deflect praise toward the community he ministers but he is the ambassador. You will get to know him in a minute and in a minute it will feel like a lifelong friend.
White Grass is also The Shire. Strange hobbits all sharing the same plantar attributes, skis, and split boards, to slid and discover the shelters and springs along the glide uphill, the vistas, then the shush to the powder stashes in the trees or the plow down a twisting trail. It is a place to find solitude and a place to find community.
You really must ski White Grass once. I need to get back again to refresh and drink the communion waters of the shot ski. Thank you Chip and Laurie.
I'm not sure how long it took me to read this, maybe 15 minutes. What I will say, it was the best damn15 minutes of my week.
I've never XC skied but I sure need to try.
Whitegrass has been added to my to do list.
Blue Don, I'm glad you enjoyed it! The funny backstory behind this is that the original version was so long that it wouldn't post -- it reached the maximum article size limit hard-coded in my database. So I had to edit it down further before I could post it without receiving an error. While I try to keep typical DCSki articles down to a manageable size, for the Interview Series I figure it's a chance to really allow the subject to open up and share as much detail as they want. And I get a nice bulk discount on digital ink, ha.
I'm really grateful to Chip for taking time out of his busy day to go into so much depth and provide such thoughtful answers.
Wonderful article Scott. Have been a fan of White Grass for years and only last year bought XC ski set up for the wifey and me. Have know Chip and Lauri for going on 30 years now. They are some of the best people I know. Chip is a local mushroom guru as well. Attended an event at his house a couple of years ago and was amazed at his knowledge. He is also an inductee into the Snow Sports Museum of West Virginia's inaugural class of 2020. We will induct him and 19 others on the 19 of June at Black Bear Lodge here in the valley. Good times and good people.